MONT DES ALOUETTES, France - Two-time runner-up Andy Schleck and his Leopard-Trek teammates have made a near-perfect start to the Tour de France, putting themselves in an ideal position to claim the yellow jersey in Sunday's team time trial.
Schleck, who lost last year's Tour to Alberto Contador by 39 seconds, finished the first stage Saturday behind the Spaniard after being caught in a crash near the finish. But he benefited from a rule that gave him the same time as the riders who were with him when the accident happened.
Schleck leads his Spanish rival by 1 minute and 14 seconds and trails race leader Philippe Gilbert by only six seconds, a small margin that the Luxembourg rider's strong Leopard-Trek outfit can easily erase in the team time trial.
The team was launched this season around brothers Andy and Frank Schleck and lured several riders from Contador's team Saxo Bank. It is regarded as one of the most powerful in the race against the clock.
"We can achieve a good result with this strong team and aim for the stage win," Leopard-Trek sports director Kim Andersen said. "If there is a chance to get the yellow jersey, we'll take it."
Should the team win the 14-mile stage in Les Essarts, Linus Gerdemann would don the prestigious shirt as he is the best-placed rider from the team in 11th position overall, six seconds behind Gilbert.
Schleck took advantage of a rule stipulating that the riders involved in a crash within the last 2 miles of the stage are credited with the same time as the pack they were in.
Contador was slowed down by another pile-up about 6 miles from the end and could not benefit from the rule.
Contador and Schleck finished the 118-mile stage in the same group, respectively in 35th and 39th position. But Contador lost a significant 1:20 while Schleck conceded only six seconds.
"Cycling is not just about pedalling, it's also important to ride with your brain and stay up front in such conditions," Schleck said.
Schleck, who is looking for his first Grand Tour win, said it was obvious that the first stage between Passage du Gois and Mont des Alouettes was going to be a nervous one.
"I mean we are in the Vendee region, it's windy here and you need to be up front in the last 25 kilometers," he said. "We gained some time today, tomorrow we'll be aiming for the stage win and then we'll see for the general classification."
Schleck, who criticized Contador for dropping him last year in the Pyrenees after the Luxembourg rider's chain came off, said he was not aware that the Spaniard was among the group caught in the first crash.
"When a crash happens while we are going 65 kph, it's impossible to see who is there or who isn't," Schleck said. "We knew it was important to go full gas because there would be riders left behind. It wasn't until later that we learned Contador was in the second group."
The short time trial Sunday will be held on flat roads sheltered from the wind, and Andersen said it should not create big gaps between the main contenders.
"It's going to be a fast time trial," he said. "We are not expecting significant time gaps. Four or five teams could be in contention for the win."
Also, British sprinter Mark Cavendish had a late puncture and missed a chance to challenge in the first stage. Cavendish was aiming for the 16th stage win of his Tour career when he had to dodge a crash with about a mile left.